LABOUR TURMOIL and strike threats spawned by the introduction of new-generation "regional jets" have diverted attention away from an evolution that is taking place in both the airline and aircraft manufacturing industries.
This is the opinion of aircraft manufacturers, airline-industry pundits and air-carrier officials who say that the financial gamble taken by Bombardier in 1992 with the introduction of the 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) is already leading to new ways of conducting business.
Canadair's grand experiment began with a stretch of the Challenger business aircraft, but later arrivals in the regional twinjet field are offering very different designs. At the same time, the selection has widened, with turbofan aircraft manufacturers preparing or planning to offer regional aircraft with as little as 32 or as many as 84 seats.
What has sparked all this interest? According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, the regional/commuter airline industry continues to be "-the fastest-growing sector of the commercial-aviation industry". Over the past three years, journeys and revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) grew at average annual rates of 7.2% and 11.2%, respectively.
The stronger growth in regional airline RPKs relative to journeys reflects the increased trip lengths of the routes served by the regionals. Since 1990, the average trip length of the industry's aircraft has increased by around 70km (40 nm), to 360km in 1996.
The increase is caused by the shifting of large numbers of low-density, short-haul routes from the major air carriers to their regional codesharing partners, who in turn have changed to larger high-speed turboprops and regional-jet aircraft.
In 1996, US regionals carried 58 million passengers - 10% of all passenger traffic in scheduled domestic air service. Projections show that by the year 2008, these carriers will carry 107 million paying customers, representing 12% of all domestic ticket buyers. Extra purchases of regional jets and large turboprops with ranges of up to 1,600km are expected "to open up new opportunities for growth in non-traditional markets", concludes the US aviation agency.
The US regional fleet is projected to rise from 2,100 in 1996 to 2,900 in 2008, an increase of 70 aircraft (or 3%) annually. Most of the growth in the regional fleet occurs in the larger aircraft categories. The forecast is that by 2008, 68% of the fleet will seat 20 or more passengers, up from 42% in 1996.
The move to regional jets and larger turboprops results in the average seating capacity of the regional fleet increasing from 31 seats in 1996 to 38 seats in 2008, the FAA adds.
Leading the pack of regional-jet manufacturers is Bombardier, which on 21 April completed the sale of 30 General Electric CF-34-3B1-powered CRJ-200s worth $600 million to Atlantic Southeast Airlines, with options for 60 more.
The transaction is the largest single CRJ order to date. Fellow Delta Connection carriers Comair and SkyWest operate 55 of the aircraft, and Mesa Air Group has placed firm orders for 16 and options for 16 of the $20 million aircraft. Atlantic Coast Airlines recently placed a firm order for 12 CRJ-200ERs worth $240 million and has taken options on 36 more.
Earlier this year, Bombardier launched a 70-seat stretched derivative of the CRJ, the $23 million Series 700, with a firm order for four aircraft from French regional airline Brit Air.
The company says that it has options and conditional orders for a further 28 aircraft, plus memoranda of understanding for another 35, including six for Taiwan's Great China Airlines. Eight airlines have signed agreements for the General Electric CF34-8C-powered Series 700 aircraft, says Bombardier.
The Atlantic Southeast and Brit Air transactions increased to 236 the number of CRJs on firm order, of which 159 have been delivered and 77 are on firm backlogged order.
Atlantic Southeast picked the Canadian-built regional jet over the only other new 50-seat regional jet now available - the $15.5 million Embraer EMB-145, but the Brazilian aircraft maker still holds around 72 firm orders and 219 options for its twinjet. In September 1996, Continental Express ordered 25 EMB-145s worth $375 million, becoming the first North American customer for the aircraft. The first EMB-145 went into service in April. Continental Express holds options for 175 additional aircraft powered by the Allison AE3007.
Meanwhile, Embraer has confirmed its intention of developing a family of small regional jets which will include a new 37- and 70-seat aircraft on either side of the EMB-145.
The EMB-135 is basically a shortened version of the three-abreast 145. A de-rated version of the AE3007 and another powerplant are being considered for this version.
The EMB-170 would have an all-new, wider fuselage and four-abreast seating. Its wing would be largely common with that of the -145, but with a 610mm wing-root extension and leading-edge slats. It would be powered by a 45kN (10,000lb)-thrust version of the AE3007.
AI(R) in the frame
Not to be left out is Aero International (Regional) (AI(R)) which is developing a 58- to 85-seat regional-jet family. The baseline AI(R) JET 70 is a 70- seater, using the ATR 72 fuselage cross-section, a new, swept, wing and tail-mounted turbofans. An engine selection by the Aerospatiale/Alenia/British Aerospace joint venture is pending. Under consideration are the General Electric CF-34-8C and the proposed Snecma/Pratt & Whitney Canada SPW14 turbofan.
Airlines will also be offered the stretched AI(R) JET 84 with 84 seats and the shortened AI(R) JET 58, a 58-seat variant. Launch of the AI(R) JET 70 is due for later this year. The first flight is scheduled for the middle of 2000 with first deliveries a year later.
AI(R) benefited in October 1996 when Northwest Airlines selected the Avro RJ85 to replace McDonnell Douglas DC-9-10s on certain routes, placing an order for 12 aircraft with options for 24 more. The RJs are being being subleased to its Northwest AirLink feeder Mesaba Airlines. The first RJ85 - in a two-class configuration - arrived in April.
Fairchild Dornier weighs in with the 328JET, a turbofan-powered version of its 328 turboprop, and the first modern 32-seat-plus regional jet. The Pratt & Whitney Canada PW306/9 will power the aircraft. A 50-seat stretch, the 528JET, is also planned.
The company hopes to fly the 32-seater by January 1998, aiming for certification a year later. It also plans an avionics upgrade and possible rewinging with a new swept wing in 2002.
A wider choice in mid-size turbofan aircraft has not, however, led to widespread introduction of RJs among regional carriers, or for that matter, with some majors. The RJs only make economic sense on certain routes and service patterns. Meanwhile, "scope clauses" in existing pilot contracts with the majors have served to restrain the regional-jet market and, in a recent case, have created anxiety in air travellers.
Scope clauses in some pilots' contracts limit the regionals to flying turboprops, and/or aircraft with 70 seats or less. The issue has not kept Continental and Atlantic Southeast, Comair and SkyWest - Delta Connection carriers - from embracing CRJs, but it has not been smooth flying at United Airlines and American Airlines, where the pilots have taken a hard line.
Independently owned Mesaba is operating the RJ85s with 69 seats because Northwest's scope clause allows codesharing partners to operate jet-powered aircraft with fewer than 70 passenger seats.
Atlantic Coast Airlines, the Washington-Dulles airport based United Express regional, is prepared to fly its CRJs as an independent carrier if United Airlines is unable to reach an agreement with its pilots which enables its regional affiliates to fly jet-powered aircraft.
Mesa, another United Express affiliate, will use some of its CRJs to feed America West, but the bulk of them will operate from Fort Worth's Meacham International Airport from 5 May, offering point-to-point service within Texas.
American may soon be in the market for regional jets since American pilots are expected to ratify a new labour pact. American Eagle would get regional jets; and American pilots would enjoy a pay rise and more stock. As part of the deal, American pilots facing furlough can fly regional jets. American Eagle pilots will gain easier access to jobs with the major carrier.
William Wrightson, an airline-industry analyst with Alex Brown & Sons, says that several major airline pilots groups "-have already done the maths and concluded that the pay cuts and productivity enhancements required for them to fly RJs profitably are not in their best interest. It is our belief that the regional airlines will be the primary regional-jet customers over the next few years".
A NEW ERA
Fairchild Dornier's Josef Simmerl is "-firmly convinced that the time is right for regional jets". Embraer's Mark Paul Hale believes that the 50-seat regional market represents up to a potential worldwide market for 500 to 1,000 regional jets.
He says that "-the move is on to jets because of the give and take of the routes by the major partners and the negative perception of turboprops by the public. Boosted by the retirement of first-generation regional turboprops and Stage 2 aircraft, this demand will accelerate.
Walt Coleman, head of the US Regional Airline Association, says that regional jets today make up 4% of the US regional fleet. By 1999, the figure will triple, representing as many as 200 aircraft and one-quarter of total regional-airline passenger seats. Coleman says that "-the industry has evolved as newer, larger, faster and longer-range turboprops have been introduced over the last decade. Introduction of the regional jet is a larger step".
Wrightson is "bullish" on regional jets, which he believes "-are going to fundamentally change the airline business over the next five years. As more jets are deployed, we believe many new markets will be added to the growing roster of airports that never had jet service before. These new aircraft designs are revolutionising the industry as we speak," he says.